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Retirement Is Harder Than It Looks. That’s Where Therapy Comes In.

For many, retirement is a loss of identity and purpose — and it takes some real emotional work to ease out of a career with grace

After four years of medical school and three years of residency, Dr. Marc Leavey started practicing family medicine in 1977. From there, he held the same practice and worked in the same office for 43 years — 48, if you count med school and his first postgrad year, he tells MEL. Day in, day out, for half a century. Being a family practitioner was just who Leavey was. His whole identity.

Until eight months ago, when he finally retired.

Since then, Dr. Leavey has traveled, reconnected with old friends and transitioned into retirement fairly easily, he says. But it took real emotional work, he says: “I can retain an interest in my profession without being constrained by it, but it takes planning, support and a willingness on your part to ‘let go’ of your work and take control of your life.”

Some retirees aren’t quite as prepared for the abrupt change. Roughly 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day and subsequently enter retirement, and many find the transition way harder than it looks on Caribbean cruise ads.

In subreddits such as r/Retirement or r/AskRedditOver60, you’ll find anxious questions about what comes next. Can retirement “actually be worse and drive you crazy?” one asks.

Can being retired actually be worse and drive you crazy? from AskRedditOver60

In the above thread, redditor Tjbhr says, “I’m 62 & have been retired 2 1/2 years. It has been a struggle to stay busy doing things I actually enjoy. I’ve volunteered for several different organizations and have had a hard time actually finding something I find fulfilling. I think just this summer I stumbled on 3 different volunteer gigs I am actually enjoying. Retirement is like anything else in life you really have to work at it to be successful at it, in my opinion.”

Some sports leagues like the NFL even offer retirement therapy to their athletes. Maybe everyday working folks ought to do the same.

A Lost Identity

Dr. Deborah Heiser, an applied developmental psychologist who specializes in helping people enter retirement age, once had a recently retired patient tell her, “I feel like I’m falling off a cliff.”  

“For many, the business card is a primary identity, and when that goes, so does the feeling of identity, belonging, purpose and productivity,” she tells MEL. “Adjusting to the change can be difficult for many, and seeking coaching, therapy or support is a great way to confront a challenge and find new opportunities and a sense of productivity and to have a clear sense of identity.”  

For the patient falling off a cliff, “the idea of retirement meant impending doom. Everything about her identity and sense of self-worth and purpose was tied to her job. She had a position and career she was proud of and she feared no one would treat her with the same respect [or] want to spend time with her, and that she would no longer have relevance. She felt extremely anxious about her new role in life and [about the perceived] powerless, unproductive and irrelevant identity of a retiree. She did not sink into depression, but [she] was at risk for depression, anxiety and bad habits.”  

In therapy with Dr. Heiser, her patient was able to “talk about her fears” and realize her identity “was not her business card,” the doctor says.

Jacob Brown, a therapist in the San Francisco area specializing in therapy for seniors, says many of his clients come in after retirement “feeling sad and disconnected from their life.”

He explains: “For decades, we get up each morning and go to our job. Our profession not only gives us somewhere to go and something to do each day, it also gives us a place in the world, a sense of accomplishment, and it constitutes a significant part of our identity. When you take that away, people can feel lost.”

Plus, he says, people work for retirement, which tends to put that life stage on a pedestal. “We go to tremendous effort planning for our retirement, thinking about all the wonderful benefits we’ll get by retiring: more time, relaxation, travel,” he says. “But with all the focus on what we’ll get out of retirement, very few people spend any time looking at what they will lose through retirement.”

“They don’t understand why they aren’t happy now that they’ve got all the extra time to enjoy themselves,” he tells MEL.

Upon retiring, you’re losing a sense of self and purpose. But then when retirement doesn’t quite live up to the immensely high bar we set for it, it bums us out even more.

What Retirement Therapy Looks Like

Ultimately, Brown says, the role of post-retirement therapy should be to help individuals find new sources of meaning in their life. And not just hobbies, like golf or knitting — “which are great, but they don’t give a person a sense of meaning.”  

Brown adds: “In therapy, [retirees] search for the ideas that bring them meaning. This search is deeply personal and involves looking inward to find what we really care about and truly matters to us. The goal is to understand who they are as a person, without all the trappings of work and career.”

In other words, therapy forces retirees to look inward and rediscover a sense of self, “past the social conventions and norms that limit our vision,” to help us “get to the true self that is within.”

Think of it as your early twenties all over again, only this time you’ve — hopefully — got some money and the wherewithal to seek therapy so it’s not so miserable this time. And just like your early twenties, it’s easy to talk a big game about who you are and what you believe in, only to go watch TV for 12 hours.

So what’s Dr. Leavey done to find new meaning? Well, he maintains a medical blog called String of Medical Pearls, where you’ll see him answer a lot of MEL’s very strange medical questions. But that’s not all.

“One needs to establish a new schedule, a ‘new normal,’ to use the cliche,” he says. “I and many of my friends established a daily routine of classes, exercise and family activities. Nothing so strict that it could not be bent to accommodate an exception, but enough to ensure that we were not sitting around watching TV all day. If I spend a day watching TV, I’m sick!”

Leavey adds that he’s brought a big list of chores into his new identity as well. “Basements are being cleaned, fences are being mended, some are taking new interest in lawn and gardens, and others clear swaths of time to be able to care for grandchildren or aged parents.”  

Acting on Therapy

Dr. Leavey found new meaning in a new routine, and — this is key — he acts on it every day. “Identifying what gives us meaning isn’t enough,” Brown explains. “People often need help finding the courage to bring those ideas into their life. When you take on a new identity, it reveals a lot about who you are and what you think is important. And that kind of vulnerability can be scary, [so] therapy helps people gain the courage to move forward with this new identity.”

Often, when people don’t do the emotional work to find a new sense of self, they can slip into an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, which leads to depression and anxiety, Heiser explains. Especially “if they do not look at themselves in a complete, three dimensional way.”

How Do Retirees Avoid Depression?

If retirees see themselves as simply that — a retiree, with the ability to sleep and do nothing all day — they’re bound for depression.

Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist at Innovation 360 in Dallas, Texas, advises we stop “thinking about retirement as the point in our life where you drop everything. … Instead, start thinking of retirement as a period of transition where we scale back, we change our pace, maybe shift the focus of our time and energy. We do better when it is meaningful to us, something we enjoy and somewhere that we feel we can contribute and interact with other humans. When we do that, we tend to have better mental and physical health. And that increases our options. I love options.”

So, Heiser says, in therapy they’ll find some avenues and goals that people can home in on during retirement — including some specific questions:

  1. Does the person have a sense of purpose?
  2. A sense of identity they feel good about? Grandparent, for example.
  3. Is the parent engaged in activities they enjoy?
  4. Is the parent productive?  
  5. Does the parent talk about projects and ideas? Do they have something to look forward to?  

We, the offspring of this generation, can ask these questions about our own parents to make sure they’re not slipping into depression. And not to add more pressure to a generation already delaying our own kids, Heiser says, but taking on the new identity of “grandparent” is a major ease on the newly retired.

Dr. Gilliland has a few more quick pointers to make sure your retired parents aren’t struggling.

“Look at the usual suspects of struggle and success. If your parents love talking about what they are doing or who they are helping and wanting to show you pictures of it, they’re probably doing okay,” he explains.

“Regardless of age, being engaged with other people and working on projects in the community or church or around the house are good things,” he says. “Especially when it involves physical and mental activities. Those keep us healthy. If your parents seem to order their life based on what you are doing or wanting to be with you ‘all the time,’ they may be struggling. They may be disconnected from other people or activities that give them energy.”

Proceed with caution, Gilliland warns. “If retired parents are ‘asking’ their kids to fill their lives and give them meaning and purpose, they are probably going to be disappointed. It can and should bring us joy and meaning to be part of our adult children’s lives” — emphasis on part.

Heiser adds that for many retirees, it provides more meaning when this second identity is something they choose, not based on duty. “[The new identity] isn’t one required to pay the bills or support a family,” she says. “It is often born from passion from within.”  

Retirement, and therapy with retirees, “is a process,” Heiser concludes. Tthere are a lot of dynamics at play, especially when you’re asking someone to basically find a new identity. “I work with them to find out where they stand with their identity, how their family sees them, the dynamics of all of this, and I work to see what they’d like to have as their legacy so they can work toward an identity they value and feel connected to.”

As for Dr. Leavey, he credits his successful retirement so far to two things he did while working. “A vital first step,” he says, was financial planning through a 401(k) and other retirement savings. The second step was to “have more in your life than work.”

The work-life balance is something millennials infamously struggle with. Leavey says it’s good to at least plant the seeds of good hobbies, passions and involvement with friends and family.

“[They] may not be able to consume a significant amount of your time while you are working, but the seeds need to be planted so that they can germinate when you have the time to devote to them.”

“There comes that day when you wake up and you don’t have to go to work,” he tells MEL. “When I retired, we had planned a vacation not long after retirement, and [we] were able to extend it a few days just to relax and break the cycle. Coming back to home and a loving family, without the stress of needing to go back to work, was wonderful.”